A chicken in every yard? Why not?

  • By Debra Smith Herald Columnist
  • Wednesday, August 20, 2008 5:04pm
  • Life

I’ll admit it: I have pro-chicken leanings.

Five years ago I would have dismissed backyard hens as a throwback to farm life that should probably be left there.

Since then, by chance, my job has taken me to suburban homes with backyard hens. What I’ve found is that a few properly cared for hens (minus the cock-a-doodle-doo rooster) are clean and quiet enough that you wouldn’t know they were there laying eggs on the other side of the fence.

Chickens suffer from a PR problem. People think chickens are dirty, noisy and smelly. The truth? A few cared-for hens are cleaner and quieter than one big dog or the three neighbor cats that poop in the flower beds. Plus you get eggs.

Maybe because of those negative associations, cities in Snohomish County have vastly different regulations for chickens. In Everett, you can keep up to six hens but no rooster. Just across the border in Mukilteo, no hens are allowed at all. You also can’t start a flock in Edmonds or Lynnwood. Keep in mind that the most densely developed and urban of our area cities, Seattle, allows three hens.

Can hens be smelly and dirty? You bet. So can dogs, cats, parakeets, rabbits and hamsters, when an owner keeps too many and doesn’t care for them. Nearly all the city codes in the county have a provision that prohibits animals from becoming a public nuisance. Presumably, people who don’t take care of their flock could be handled under these provisions.

I bring all this up because more people are interested in keeping a few backyard hens for eggs. At least that’s what Joan DeVries has noticed. She works for the Washington State University’s Livestock Advisor Program, which provides education for people who want to raise farm animals.

People who raise a few hens probably won’t be saving money on eggs or meat, but they will know it’s safe and of good quality, and that’s what most people who want to raise them are concerned with, she said.

Part of her job is educating the public at venues such as the Evergreen State Fair. She’s continually surprised by how removed many of us are from nature. She has met children who can’t recognize a goat. It’s not just the kids, either.

On the other end of the spectrum is Emmett Wild, a 4-H phenom with more blue ribbons and trophies than Michael Phelps. The 17-year-old from Lakewood raises, breeds and shows poultry. He keeps not only chickens, but rare ducks and homing pigeons. Emmett keeps nearly 100 birds, but he also lives in a rural area and his family has enough property.

Emmett said kids who would like to get into chickens should find a local breeder and start with good chicks. He breeds and promotes heritage breeds. He suggested attending the Cascade Spring Show in March at the Evergreen State Fairgrounds to talk with breeders.

His father, Ken Wild, said 4-H has provided a supportive environment and it’s a good step for families interested in raising chickens. He said raising chickens helps instill responsibility. Emmett’s involvement in 4-H has certainly made him knowledgeable. I quizzed him on everything from composting to breeding. He is considering a career in sustainable agriculture.

If you’d like more information on chickens, consider subscribing to “Backyard Poultry” magazine or reading “Keep Chickens! Tending Small Flocks in Cities, Suburbs, and Other Small Spaces” by Barbara Kilarski or “Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens” by Gail Damerow.

Two information-packed Web sites contain good information for backyard chicken keeping as well as plenty of photos of moveable coops appropriate for small yards: www.thecitychicken.com and www.backyardchickens.com.

Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or dsmith@heraldnet.com. Visit her blog at www.heraldnet.com.

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